Phone-tapping is passé. Or so it seems after the unbelievable incident of WhatsApp being used for snooping and spying on hundreds of its users through the spyware Pegasus. Two weeks have passed after the revelation of this mindboggling attack on the privacy and stealing of personal data of people across the globe. Its full implications are still not known. But one thing is certain. WhatsApp which brags of privacy and security as its prime concern is not impenetrable. It too has feet of clay and its boasts are turning out to be hollow. The messaging platform’s explanation that it is going to sue Israeli firm NSO Group for using its spyware for hacking people’s phones gives little consolation for the victims of surveillance.
The who is who of victims in India gives a new twist to this murky saga. Most of the names appearing in various reports suggest it was mainly Opposition leaders, human rights activists, journalists and lawyers who were targeted for spying. This gives credence to the charge that the government may be behind the sinister move to snoop on people whom it finds inconvenient and a challenge.
The modus operandi of the spyware can trap anyone using WhatsApp. A wrong click on an ‘alluring or juicy’ link will lead to the installation of Pegasus on a user’s phone. Once installed, the spyware helps the hacker to take full control of the phone including the ability to read chats and copy the data, including the most personal ones. This possibility sends shivers down the spine as any agency – official or private – which can afford to get hold of such spyware can make others’ life hell. At a time when government agencies are unleashed like hounds after prey this is a worrisome development. Israeli firm NSO has said that it sells its software only to government authorities with the request that it should not be misused for political ends. But, in reality, it does not happen. Last year, it was reported that Pegasus software was used to do surveillance on Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist murdered in Turkey, by Saudi government operatives.
In a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court, on August 24, 2017, had ruled that the right to privacy was a fundamental right under the Constitution. The unanimous judgment of the nine-judge bench had stated unequivocally that “the right to privacy is an intrinsic part of the Right to Life and personal liberty”. If so, a responsible government can neither indulge in snooping nor it can allow others to do so. On the other hand, snooping and official surveillance is justified when the same is done to track down criminals, terrorists and their activities. However, reports on clandestine snooping, spying and surveillance raise serious questions on the very survival of democracy in the country. It is pertinent to point out the observation of Justice (retired) B N Srikrishna who chaired the committee of experts on data protection: “I am extremely alarmed. If the reports are true, we may be sliding into an Orwellian State with Big Brother snooping on us, as depicted in the novel 1984.”(Published on 18th November 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 47)